Murphy Tour Part VII: Xizang.

No, I'm not sponsored by Continental...

Had listened to the problems which all non-cyclist travellers seems to have in China - prices for transport: official, unofficial, via CITS, black market etc ad nauseum. We felt really happy not to have to deal with that and all the other obstacles the backpackers have batter. They ask us how we cyclists can do what we do, but I would like to reverse that question. According to the same source, there were checkpoints all along the Golmud Highway and we couldn't make it. When Nadine and I ( Tom and Stefan had decided to go to East Tibet instead via Yushu) arrived at the first one, we were met with big smiles and warnings about the cold on the plateau. 

On the way up to the Kunlun Pass I caught and passed four Chinese touring cyclists, equipped with one gear bikes, bicycle baskets on the handle bars and small backpacks with some snacks. Those Chinese...those who don't go on a guided tour, seems to be of a really hard breed. Impressed!

Some small gusts of wind hit me when I rolled down on the other side of the pass and what I didn't knew then was that the wind in my face would be a standard thing for the next 12 days to Lhasa. It was not the normal kind of wind either, it was like some sort of icy wind out of a cold hell. Usually we had calm mornings, but at 09:15 it picked up and at 09:30 it was already very hard. In the end of the days it sometimes reached gale force and I was at several occasions stopped dead and almost flew over the handlebars.

Lips messed up from the howling winds.

The desolation was sometimes total. The road in front of us was the only sign of civilization and the cold and windswept plateau was incredibly bleak, barren and at the same time very beautiful. Food was not a problem, there were always a small roadside eating joint or town within a days distance. Usually steaming hot noodles were served in enormous portions and I was amazed about how smooth and easy the route towards Lhasa was. There were some higher passes, but they were all pretty easy, thanks to the low gradient and the perfect asphalt. The mighty Tanggula Shankou was a long hard sucker due to the altitude (according to the most maps somewhere between 5230m and 5385m) and the blizzard that hit me half way up. What the maps doesn't tell you is that there area  second pass over 5200m just 40 km further on and a second and a third blizzard made it extra cozy.

Arrived in Amdo and was stunned by the funky winter outfit the Tibetans wore. Much more diverse and eye catching than the equivalents I had seen in the west in -97. Probably because of the better financial situation in Amdo, compared to the poor outback of the southern part of the Changtang. Impressed by the endurance of the people around the campfires in the outskirts of Amdo. Ok, they were all drunk, but to sit and sing around a campfire through the night in sub zero temperatures is feat of it's own.

monster.JPG (73144 byte) That vehicle with an evil minded person behind the wheel would be nightmare...

The plan had been to go for the eastern parts of Tibet, but we had already forged our visas and was sure that the alterations would be good enough for a border crossing, but not necessarily good enough for closer scrutiny by the PSB if caught in the forbidden areas in the east. It felt hard, to once again, change the plan and go for a more standard route. Threw long looks born out of envy at the road which could've taken us to Riwoqe and the rough and more interesting roads in the east.  

Started before sunrise to avoid the winds. A peak 220km from Lhasa.

225 km out of Lhasa, Nadine decided to take a truck the last part and I decided to go for it in one day. Over two magnificent passes and joined a pilgrim cyclist on his way to Lhasa. Had a break at the foot of central Tibet's highest mountain Nyangqentagla Feng and said goodbye to the pilgrim who had had enough of competing climbing up passes. Arrived at the turnoff towards Suge Pass and couldn't believe the luck I had - A raging wind brought me towards Lhasa...for 2 km. Then the road construction started. The asphalt had been broken up and the mess that was ahead was really miserable. A complete chaos of sand, gravel, half finished sections of passovers continued for ever and ever, actually all the way to Lhasa. Was almost blown to bits when some road workers forgot to stop before a blasting zone. Rocks and debris, sometimes of the size of a cow, came crashing down all around me. Another great thing was the thousands of people that framed my path towards the goal - they all suffered from the obsessive behaviour of screaming hello, hello, HELLO! in your face and after some time I was utterly of it even if they only meant well. 

I have no clue what drove me forward that day and where the energy came from, but three hours after dark I arrived in the outskirts of Lhasa. I felt like I was hundreds, if not thousands of years back in time when I saw the people sitting around smoky campfires on the mountainsides. Snapped back to our time when I saw the first neon signs from the nowadays partly very partly modern city.   

Had two days break and took off for the Friendship Highway. Didn't felt that good about doing the route again, but on the other hand, last time I had been there I had been forced to push it in 7 days to Kathmandu, again due to visa restrictions. This time I would go slow, enjoy and go via Gyantze an alternative to the straight road to Shigatze.

A vessel made out of various "yak parts". First day out of Lhasa, Tsangpo River.

The Friendship Highway sounds good, but the name is not a very suitable name for the route. The mentality of the people along the road were not at all the same as in other parts of Tibet. Corrupted by all the rich travelers who think they do the locals a favour when handing out anything willy-nilly through the land cruiser window, the people along the road is greedy and tourist tired at best and aggressive and criminal at worst. Was at several occasions hailed by rocks, when not handing over the demanded pens, dollars, candies or whatevers. Sad, about the impact tourism have had on this part of Tibet and fucking angry at all the "nice'n'rich" assholes who doesn't understand shit about what they are doing, when handing out "gifts" and creating envy, greed and hostility.

Managed to miss three turnoffs to Khampa Pass and settled on going on the old route. A wonderful, steep climb! One of my absolute favourites! The views from the top of the pass overlooking Yamdruk lake is stunning and so is the cycling all along the shore of it. Went over the easy, but high Karo Pass and were hit by a very local blizzard on the way down. Felt weird to be in ten meter visibility one minute and at the next being back in bright and warm sunshine. 

karohelper.JPG (87393 byte) Many times, you got some help to pack your gear in the morning.

Passed Gyantze and continued back towards the Friendship Highway. A whole school decided to attack us and rocks, pebbles, sticks and an ink bottle (!) almost hit us. We cycled into the court yard of the school to have a talk to the teachers of the school. One stared with empty eyes at us and didn't seem to get the point about the problem, but the other one screamed a bit at the children. When one courageous kid wanted to continue the attack and aimed a rock at us, the second teacher swiftly pick up a hand sized rock and threw it with full at the back of the "brave" kid. The teacher smiled at us in "see-I-have-everything-under-control-way" and the kid went down hard in agony. Left the school stunned and had some doubts about the Tibetan way of teaching kids about how to act towards foreigners. 

Passed Shigatze by night, to avoid the "Highway Gestapo Patrol", a squad of roaming PSB, which had caught and fined quite a lot of cyclists and hitchhikers, according to people we had met in Lhasa.

On the small pass before Lhatze a bus with two western looking mountain bikes on top, stopped and out came two British cyclists. They were also under the time axe of the Chinese visa limitations and had decided to take the bus to Lhatze. They informed us that they were going to play it safe with the checkpoint after Lhatze and wanted to pass it after dark. We had long meals and discussed different tactics in how to pass it without being detected. I was not overly worried about the place, last time I had passed it without hassles, but better safe than sorry. 

lhatze.JPG (76660 byte) Waiting for the night in the outskirts of Lhatze. Will and Garrett trying to make their bikes more silent.

Waited until dark fall and headed out in the cold night. When I was close to the place I saw a soldier sitting outside in the cold reading something and obviously I concentrated too hard on the guard itself and almost crashed into the barrier. Ducked at the last possible moment and whispered a warning to the amorphous shape of Nadine, who were a couple of meters back in the dark. Camped under a clear star bright sky and was in a very cheerful mood after the successful checkpoint dodging. 

garwillsleep.JPG (91500 byte) Will and Garrett the morning after. Cold!

Raced up the Gyontso Pass and for the first time I felt strong all the way up to the 5200m+ summit. Had a meal of nuts, raisins, dried yak cheese and some other goodies with the almost permanently settled beggars, who wait up there for hand outs from the tourists. I can't blame them, during the hours I spent up there waiting for the others, land cruiser after land cruiser stopped and almost without exception hordes of tourists stormed out and gave and the beggars (and me!!!!!) loads of goodies. They were a bit confused about my presence up there and to them, I guess I looked as scruffy and weird as the other guys guys up there....) German chocolate, Japanese cheese, fresh vegetables, pens, dollars etc. Big photo sessions, pissing behind the prayer flags and so on followed.

5220eating.JPG (94503 byte) A long meal with the boys on Gyontso Pass.
nadi5220.JPG (59067 byte) Nadine and some off the guys.

Nadine, Garrett and Will arrived and we continued, leaving  the high altitude circus arena behind. It was a long and cold down hill towards Shegar. Will's back derailleur froze solid a couple of times and it was bliss to arrive in the small restaurant village. 

After a crazy feast of triple servings of noodles, tofu, rice and so on, we decided to once again play it safe and pass the Shegar checkpoint the same night. Passed under the control post accompanied by a pack of very loud barking dogs. Was at that point very pleased of the temperature: a good -15C keeps the most zealous guard in front of the stove inside the compound.

The morning after it was -18C at nine a clock and to be modest, it was a quite fresh morning. Will and Garrett took off for the Everest Base Camp and for the zillionth time Nadine and I cursed the too short visa period.

nadiwater.JPG (45794 byte) A brilliant day. One of the last under the deep blue, high altitude sky
Nadine and "the big one" in the background.

Up and over the last double pass.

yellowwall.JPG (100911 byte) At a road construction camp in between the two passes.

Had a long break on the beautiful Tong/Yarlung Shan Pass. Watched the Xixabangma massif and I was hit by a feeling of sadness.

xixabangma.JPG (69534 byte) The mighty Xixabangma Feng Massif and a lonely man.

I was about to leave this wonderful part of the world for this time. The big vast spaces of the plateau was about to be changed into hot, humid and overcrowded lowlands of the Indian Subcontinent. Stormed down the steep short cuts of the last pass, towards a place I didn't like that much.

Nadine, on the shortcuts. Steep, fun and fast!

Continue to the next part of the journey!


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